Glass Flowers of Harvard to Bloom at Corning Museum of Glass

Glass Flowers of Harvard to Bloom at Corning Museum of Glass – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – May 2007

Scientific marvels; drop-dead beautiful works of art; a genus onto themselves: these are just a few of the explanations given to describe the allure of a legendary, century-old bevy of exquisite glass blossoms. From May 18 to November 25, 2007, The Corning Museum of Glass brings to bear its unique curatorial, conservation and glass-making capabilities to illuminate more fully than ever before the story of the crystalline botanical specimens known as the Glass Flowers of Harvard.

“Botanical Wonders: The Story of the Harvard Glass Flowers” celebrates the singular triumph of glassmakers Leopold Blaschka (1822-1895) and his son Rudolf (1857-1939); provides insight into the intellectual appetite of the late Victorians, through the lens of botany as an academic discipline and craze; and offers close-ups of the people and the craft process behind the Glass Flowers.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History (NMNH) will lend 17 of its rarely loaned, fragile Glass Flowers for the occasion. These core works will be amplified by 25 examples of other Blaschka specimens, all sea creatures, drawn from holdings owned by Cornell University and stored and safeguarded by the Corning Museum under a long-term agreement. Also on view are vivid preparatory drawings, period photographs, personal paper, and business records, many drawn from a trove of Blaschka family materials purchased jointly by The Corning Museum of Glass and Harvard in 1993, and displayed here for the first time.

Before the development of high speed moving image media, or fiberglass, naturalists and educators faced a quandary: it was often impossible to demonstrate exactly what an invertebrate looked like without a live specimen. The Blaschkas’ glass models provided curators with displays where the form and color were permanent. This exhibition will present tour de force glass specimens of soft-bodied animals ranging from sea slugs, jellyfish and octopuses to a blue Portuguese Man-o-War floating on long, thread-like tentacles. George Lincoln Goodale, the first director of the Botanical Museum of Harvard, traveled to Dresden in 1886 to secure the services of the Blaschkas in the creation of a teaching collection of glass models. The Blaschkas eventually did agree to create a few plant models for Harvard.

At first, the Blaschkas made models of plants that they were able to grow in their garden or in a greenhouse. But as the Harvard project developed, they were asked to create models of tropical plants, which they needed to observe under natural conditions. On view in Botanical Wonders is a perfect replica of a cocoa plant that Rudolf made in 1893 from a specimen collected in Jamaica.

For 46 years, everything the Blaschkas made went to Harvard: nearly 850 models, with more than 3,000 enlarged details, were commissioned. Harvard’s glass garden was not to be an idealized one however. In the late 19th century, there was mounting interest in a new field called economic botany, the study of how plants can be utilized commercially to benefit society. If Harvard researchers were to better understand the diseases that threaten plants, they needed to know what the blighted specimens looked like. Thus, over time, Harvard commissioned hundreds of exact replicas of diseased flowers and magnified views of their fruits, reproductive organs, leaves and stalks. Not all the plants from economic families in Harvard’s collection represented plant diseases. One of the highlights of the exhibition is a glass replica of panicum boreale, or panic grass, which is found in tropical or warm temperate zones. The Blaschkas’ panic grass is almost 20 inches high, with stiff and hairy leaf sheath along its margins. The flowering stalk, or panicle, is loosely flowered, the spikelet finely pilose, and jauntily purple-pink.

The Blaschkas employed standard lampworking techniques in which an artisan bends over a small flame to work glass rods, tubes and minute pieces of glass. Heated until soft, the glass was then shaped by simple tools, and re-assembled by reheating or fusing. To help visitors understand the process, the Corning Museum will display Rudolf Blaschka’s well-worn wooden lampworking table, which the museum purchased directly from the family, along with his alcohol lamp, pincers, shears, tweezers and a whisk-like device used for clasping hot glass.

Stationed at a mid-19th-century Bohemian-style wooden workbench, with a foot-operated leather and wooden bellows tucked underneath, and using an alcohol lamp, glass artisans at the Corning Museum will fashion their own glass flowers several times a day during the period of Botanical Wonders, allowing visitors to observe the process used by the Blaschkas.

Almost all the Glass Flowers displayed in Botanical Wonders have been newly restored for the occasion by The Corning Museum of Glass in its glass conservation laboratories, the most advanced in the world. A special section examining the special challenges faced by museum conservators in restoring these mixed-media objects features a videotape that follows the conservation process and a mock-up of a conservator’s work table.

So, how good are they, really? The final section of “Botanical Wonders: The Story of the Harvard Glass Flowers” will be reserved for one glass flower and one real one of the same variety. Will visitors be able to distinguish between the two?

In a companion volume to “Botanical Wonders,” The Corning Museum of Glass offers a first glimpse into the archive of preparatory drawings obtained from the Blaschka family in the early 1990s. From the more than 900 examples in the archive, Susan Rossi-Wilcox and David Whitehouse selected 60 exceptional works for Drawing Upon Nature: Studies for the Blaschkas’ Glass Models. The first 30 color plates depict sea creatures, while the latter half features flowers. All of the botanical drawings were made into models that are still a part of Harvard’s collection. Drawing Upon Nature will be available in early May at The Corning Museum of Glass and the Harvard Museum of Natural History, as well as selected bookstores nationwide.

Also on view at The Corning Museum of Glass, in a gallery adjacent to Botanical Wonders, is Curiosities of Glassmaking, an exhibition of mysterious, unusual and ingenious objects found in the museum’s collections. Prosthetic eyes, trick-glass goblets, glass grenades and bullets, whimsies, scientific instruments, witches’ balls and items made of rare earth and uranium glasses are among the objects to be featured in the West Bridge Gallery through October 21, 2007.

The Corning Museum of Glass is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $12.50 adults, $11.25 seniors and students (with ID), 17 and under admitted free. The museum is located at 1 Museum Way in Corning, NY. For more information call (800) 732-6845 or visit www.cmog.org.

Glass flower photographs by Nicholas Williams and Andrew Fortune and courtesy of Harvard Museum of Natural History and the Rakow Research Library.

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